A Mobile man has had his conviction thrown out by a district court judge in Alabama following revelations that the state withheld reams of documents, including eyewitness identifications, that pointed to alternate suspects in the case.
George Martin was an Alabama State Trooper at the time he was arrested and charged for the murder of his wife, Hammoleketh Jackson Martin, who died in a car fire on the side of the road near U.S. 90 in October, 1995. The Mobile County District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute the case because the evidence was weak; but the Attorney General’s Office took it to trial in 2000 arguing that Martin set the fire because he wanted to claim his wife’s life insurance policy.
Though the jury in the case recommended a life sentence, the Mobile County Circuit Judge, Ferrill McRae, overrode the decision and sentenced Martin to death. According to AL.com, defense filings allege that McRae had “created a television campaign ad that indicated his intention to impose the death penalty on Martin before the sentencing hearing had been held.”
On appeal, Mobile County Circuit Judge Robert Smith found that prosecutors had violated their constitutional obligation to disclose favorable information to the defense. This included handwritten notes of investigating officers who said that the state’s key witness had initially identified the perpetrator as “a big man that filled up the car.” (Martin is only 5 feet, 6 inches tall.) An investigator labeled these notes as “work product” and wrote somewhat incriminatingly that “[d]isclosure would allow a defendant to tailor his testimony to fit the evidence in this case.”
In a photo array, this same witness picked out a different state trooper than Martin as the man he had seen near the scene of the crime. Judge Smith said that information was also improperly withheld.
According to Brendan Kirby at AL.com, more critical evidence not disclosed by the Attorney General’s Office included the following:Smith also pointed to testimony of defense lawyer Ken Nixon, who said he interviewed the trooper indicated by the Taylor’s arrow. Nixon said the trooper told him that he was not on duty on the night of Hammoleketh Martin’s death and unfamiliar with the area. The judge wrote that records withheld from the defense indicate that the other trooper was, in fact, on duty… Norma Broach, a nursing student, testified as last year’s hearing that she saw a black car with a white camper parked along U.S. 90 on the night of the victim’s death. She testified that she saw a white man get out of the camper, fill up gas cans at a Texaco station and then put it inside the car. After seeing a TV news report the next day about Hammoleketh Martin’s death, Broach said, she called CrimeStoppers to report what she had seen. She testified that after getting no response, she called a second time and made several other attempts over the years to share her observations with law enforcement officials… During closing arguments at the murder trial, prosecutors hammered away at a theory offered by the defense that the victim’s habit of driving around with a gas can in her car could have caused the fatal fire. Prosecutors argued that none of the victim’s friends corroborated that. But Smith pointed to a statement by the victim’s own sister, Terri Jean Jackson, who told investigators that Hammoleketh Martin carried a gas can. Prosecutors never provided that May 1997 statement to the defense.
In total, the judge found there were 14,000 pages of documents in the Mobile police’s possession and only 2,336 were turned over to defense counsel: “what was provided to (the defense) by the State appears to be only a small percentage of the material that was in the State’s possession.” Judge Smith concluded: “When considered collectively, the evidence favorable to the defense that was withheld by the State, had it been disclosed to Martin’s trial counsel, could reasonably have put the case in such a different light as to undermine confidence in the guilty verdict reached by the jury.”
The Alabama Attorney General’s Office is appealing the ruling, as they have a February ruling that similarly found that favorable evidence withheld by the state undermined a capital murder conviction. In that case, William John Ziegler was wrongfully sent to Alabama’s death row after the Mobile District Attorney’s Office committed prosecutorial misconduct by failing to turn over key evidence that pointed to alternate suspects and allowed testimony that prosecutors knew to be false.
Update: The Equal Justice Initiative, which represents Martin, has written a blog post about the case here.